Profiles in Courage?

By now most TCT readers will have heard of the Canadian professor and clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who has earned the wrath of all correct-thinking people, for saying that he does not acknowledge the right of the Canadian government to dictate to him words that he must use. The words in question are the invented pronouns for referring to members of self-styled sexual classes of people, classes that defy the evidence of our eyes.

Let us note first of all what pronouns are for. They relieve us of the burden of having to repeat someone’s name every ten seconds. We do not say, unless we are in a fit of sarcasm or madness, “John forgot John’s school books today, so when John got on the bus John had to ask John’s friends if any of them could lend John any.” We do not say, unless we are in a fit of political correctness of madness, “God provides for God’s people, most of all by sending down God’s son.”

In fact, if I say, “John forgot John’s books today,” the person to whom I am speaking will immediately wonder whether there are two persons named John, or only one. So too when we say, “God provides for God’s people,” since the possibility that there are two Gods is foreclosed, we suggest that perhaps God is not a personal God at all, but a thing, a force.

Personal pronouns are proper to persons; awkward avoidance of personal pronouns in the case of God suggests that there is no person there to whom to refer. The warmth of the personal pronoun is replaced with the unsettling repetition of a name that is not a name, or with locutions that avoid both the pronoun and the name. We also use pronouns for quick reference to people whose names we do not know. In all of the European languages of which I am aware, pronouns help us narrow down the range of referents by sex, which is the first thing we notice about somebody and the last thing we forget. You see a man walking down the street. He – notice the pronoun – slumps against a lamppost. You say to your friend, “Look at him – I wonder if he’s all right?” And you go over and say, “Sir, do you need any help?”

Or you see a little girl in the middle of a public square, alone and looking puzzled. You say to your friend, “I think she’s lost her mother.” And you go over and say, “Little girl, do you need any help?”


It’s hard sometimes to remember people’s names. How in the world are we supposed to remember what they have tacked onto those names, not as honorific titles, but as indices of sexual desires or invented worlds that we cannot know from observation, and about which we do not care to know?

It is one thing to forget that John is an Esquire or a Baronet. You may still refer to him just as you would refer to anyone else of John’s immediately obvious sex. John is a he. But how can you remember that John prefers to be called “ze” or “zir” or “they” or whatever? If you wish not to offend the everlastingly offensible, you will end up not referring to John at all, because although there a few social situations in which John’s being a Baronet might require mentioning, the situations calling for a pronoun are all of the ordinary situations of life.

Thus the multiplication of pronouns subverts the very reasons why we have pronouns in the first place. Imagine how speech itself must retire in stammering, if we were required to make some kind of preordained gesture in every sentence we used. And how are we to write about people? Is there to be a directory of pronouns we will have to consult, to find out how to refer to John Smith or Jane Hill, just as the English have reference books for the peerage?

So Jordan Peterson has refused to submit to the commandeering of language from on high; he will not salute the fascist left. He has said that his case, by law, ought to go to Canada’s star chamber of niceness, the Human Rights Commission. If they fine him, he will not pay it. If they throw him in prison – the pronominal ward, adjacent to the ward for the users of wrong adjectives, the adverbially malevolent, and those prone to violent interjection – he will go on a hunger strike. God bless him.

Why should I write about him here? I’m troubled by a curious neglect. Peterson is not a Catholic, or any kind of Christian, though he treats the Scriptures with respect. Why has he not been praised by the Catholics of Canada? Which prominent Catholics have rushed to support him, or to join him in his still lonely crusade for freedom of thought and sensible ordinary speech? As far as I can determine, no such support has been forthcoming. I may be wrong about this, and if so I apologize.

Imagine, though, that when the first wave of madness had crashed upon the shore, Catholics had said, all together, “We’re not going along with this.” But we have been muddled. We don’t like to cause trouble, and it’s always pleasant to hope that the madness will be a reasonably tolerant madness, an equable madness, a meek and unassuming madness. Well, madness is not like that.

And you cannot make peace with the madness. It is incoherent, ever disintegrating. It will only stop when the whole sexual and linguistic order has collapsed. I take it for granted that it is better to be hated and feared for standing up for what is right and good, with all the charitable firmness and clarity that Professor Peterson, not a Christian, has shown, than to be compliant and despicable and of no consequence whatever.


*Image: Professor Jordan Peterson, University of Toronto (Photo: Nick Kozak / for the Toronto Star)

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

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